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The nature of representation

Final Report Summary - NATREP (The nature of representation)

The experience of running downhill. The desire to drink coffee in the morning. The belief that everything is grounded in the physical. The intention that guides your hand as you reach out to grasp the doorhandle. The words “all emeralds are green”. All these phenomena have the spooky feature of “aboutness”. The words are a blast of sound localized in a particular place and time. But they represent a general fact about the universe we inhabit, and its truth or falsity depends on how the world is in the farthest reaches of the universe. A desire itself (let’s assume) is a certain configuration of your brain, but it represents a certain possible state of the world that you then set about bringing into being. We have one thing (states of our brain, other biological systems, artefacts) representing others (hills, coffee, emeralds).

What is representation? How do the more primitive aspects of our world come together to generate it? How do these different kinds of representation relate to one another? This project developed a detailed answer to these questions. In doing so, it engaged in metaphysics: seeking to identify the metaphysical foundations for a particularly striking kind of fact, and articulating how those facts are grounded in those foundations.

The account was developed is in three parts:

(1) The most primitive layer of representation is the “aboutness” of sensation/perception and intention/action, which are the two most basic modes in which an individual and the world interact. This layer of representation consists in states of our head which, if functioning properly, are produced by particular aspects of our environment (perception) or bring about changes in our environment (action/intention). It is analysed into a combination of teleology (“the function of x is to...”) and causation (“x is produced by y/ y brings about x”). We can understand how this kind of representation can exist in a fundamentally physical world so long as we have an independent, illuminating grip on functions and causation.

(2) The next layer of representation is the “aboutness” of (degrees of) belief and desire. Where the representational content of perception and action was tightly bound to visible or manipulable features of the immediate environment, beliefs and desires can represent anything (certainly anything you can think of!). This sort of representation consists in states of our head which evolve in response to incoming information from perceptual states, and which combine to produce states of intention and, ultimately, bodily action. I say: what it is for Sally to believe or desire is for the correct interpretation of her to attribute those beliefs/desires to her. In spelling out what it takes for a belief/desire interpretation to be correct, I rely on the layered structure. The correct interpretation of an agent is the one which makes their action-guiding states, given their perceptual evidence, most reasonable.

(3) The final layer of representation is the “aboutness” of words and sentences. Here I step outside the head to consider the representational features of a very special class of human creations: linguistic artefacts. Here we find representational facts such as: the name “Sally” refers to a certain person, “running” denotes a particular feature things may have, and when combined, “Sally is running” is true only if the world is a certain way. Sentences express contentful attitudes, and by appealing to this, we can give an illuminating account of the conditions under which a compositional interpretation of a public language like English is correct, and so ground facts about the semantic content of the words we use. Further, the way in which sentences express beliefs, desires, etc. can itself be reduced to facts about community-wide patterns of attitudes, allowing us to characterize the third layer of representation by means of the second layer.